Untangling Truth from Narcissism, at the Ragged Edge of Consciousness
Narcissism has entered the public spotlight and national dialogue recently thanks, in large part, to President Donald Trump and Kayne West, the famous American rapper, singer, songwriter, record producer, entrepreneur and fashion designer. Mr. West’s support of (or at least his refusal to utterly detest) President Donald Trump and the MAGA movement have caused quite a stir nationwide—especially among some members of the black community, who now view him as a traitor.
“West’s apparent embrace of Trumpism is—if we are to believe any of his last 15 years of raps, rants, and public declarations—a stunning betrayal of the marginalized communities he once staked his career on defending,” Craig Jenkins wrote in his Vulture article, “Kanye West Let Us Down.”
Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates also declared Mr. West a “race traitor” in his recent article and compared him to President Trump. He wrote: “Like Trump, West is narcissistic, ‘the greatest artist of all time,’ he claimed, helming what would soon be ‘the biggest apparel company in human history.’”
What Mr. Coates also points out, which is worth unpacking further, is this: “What Kanye West seeks is what Michael Jackson sought—liberation from the dictates of that we.” This is the insight that led to the article’s title: “I’m Not Black, I’m Kayne.”
Mr. West himself said recently in this Charlamagne interview that after he came out as a Trump supporter—or at least not a Trump hater—he felt like Clayton Bigsby from "Chappelle’s Show," the blind KKK member who doesn’t know he is black.
“I’m fightin’ to break the simulation,” Mr. West told Charlamagne. “People put thoughts in your head to separate… If you hang around people who act like you are who you are, then you’ll forget who you are.”
Mr. West’s recent interviews and comments echo many of the things Joaquin Phoenix said in the 2010 “mockumentary” directed by Casey Affleck that follows and documents the life of Mr. Phoenix from the announcement of his retirement from acting through his transition into a career as a hip-hop artist. A series of cinema verite interviews document the innermost thoughts of Mr. Phoenix as he struggles to redefine and reinvent who he is outside of who he is expected to be.
“I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore,” Mr. Phoenix says candidly in "I’m Still Here." “I’m just, like, stuck in this ridiculous, like, self-imposed fucking prison of characterization, you know?"
“I love those rare, pure moments in between action and cut, but everything else was fucking misery to me,” he says in the film. “We talk about it being this creative expression and, really, you’re just a fucking puppet. You’re this dumb fucking doll that wears what someone else tells you to wear, stands where someone else tells you to stand says what somebody else tells you to say. That’s not expression. That’s not creativity. And I have more to offer than that. My purpose on this earth is not to interpret somebody else’s words or to try and capture a moment for somebody else. It’s to bring what is inside me out.”
Whether this film is actually truth in fiction or a blurring of the truth to save face we may never know. But the truth is so brilliantly poignant here, it matters not.
There are obvious differences between Mr. Phoenix’s brutal exploration of who he is outside of the external constructs of appearance and expectation and Mr. West’s deep dive into who he is and what he believes outside of the “simulation.” Mr. Phoenix was able to fly under the radar during a less political time by spinning his raw introspection into performance art now labeled “an elaborate hoax” that reinforces his brilliant acting abilities. But as a dark-skinned and considerably more vocal (and more high-profile) man during a politically charged time, Mr. West’s plunge into the innerworkings of his pseudo-self vs. reality are placing him squarely in the spotlight, with nowhere to hide.
While it appears on the surface to be a descent into madness, a dissent of the past and/or a betrayal of “his people,” there are gems that Mr. West is dropping in his rants, tweet series and word salads—just as there were gems in much of what Mr. Phoenix says when he’s “out of character” in "I’m Still Here."
“People will take somethin’ that’s enlightened, put it in a different context and then call it crazy to try to diminish the impact and the value of what I’m actually sayin’,” West said during the Charlamagne interview.
I think actor and director Edward James Olmos said it best when he went to encourage Mr. Phoenix during his “darkest hour,” as documented in "I’m Still Here" and transcribed below. Mr. Olmos is best known for his emotionally scorching and harrowing portrait of Chicano prison-gang life in "American Me," which he coproduced, directed and starred in—and which led him to be stalked by Mexican gangs after two of the film’s consultants were slain as retribution and a warning to Olmos. He later starred as Lt. Martin Castillo in the NBC television series "Miami Vice" and as William Adama in the re-imagined "Battlestar Galactica."
“That's me, that's you. Drops of water,” he said. “And you're on top of the mountain of success. But one day you start sliding down the mountain and you think, ‘Wait a minute. I'm a mountaintop water drop. I don't belong in this valley, in this river, this low, dark ocean, with all these drops of water.’ Yeah? And you feel confused. Then one day it gets hot and you slowly evaporate in the air. Way up—higher than any mountaintop, all the way to the heavens. Then you understand that it was at your lowest that you were closest to God. Because life's a journey that goes around and around, and the end is closest to the beginning. So, if it's change you need, relish the journey. Be a drop of running water. Obey those invisible pulls on your soul—gravity, evaporation, love, creativity. It's in the darkest moments when the cracks allow the inner light to come out. But the spotlights—don't let you see the inner light. But they're part of what it's about, and that's what it is—it's actually about revealing.”
The words touch Mr. Phoenix in a place that anchors him to reality, even if for a fleeing moment. He later says, “Yeah. I don't really care about things in this world. You know? That's not how I am. To me it's all fucking illusion. It's all fear and lust. What do you fear? You fear being mediocre. You know? You wanna be great. You want to leave a mark. I want to leave something special on earth.”
I would argue that "I’m Still Here" may be the biggest gift Mr. Phoenix could ever leave planet earth, and perhaps Kayne is about to do the same—just when it seems he’s in his darkest moment, the cracks are allowing his inner light to shine through. And I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in the earnestness on his face and the softness in his eyes during the first half of the Charlamagne interview. He is trying to be real. He is trying to exist outside of all constructs the world has placed on him, outside of all the expectations the matrix has placed on his human avatar—even if only for a moment.
Mr. Phoenix and Mr. West are not the first celebrities to attempt to untangle truth from fantasy at the ragged edge of consciousness, where the veil becomes thin. Some, like Jim Carrey and Chris Rock, have come back alive, ducked for cover and figured out how to survive within the matrix. Others, like Sam Kinison and Robin Williams, have been taken out of embodiment—by themselves or others.
Mr. Rock was one of the first to pierce the veil of illusion and understand that what he perceived in the world around him was in direct conflict with that which is proposed. In this interview with ABC News after Mr. Williams’ death, Rock said, “Ignorance is bliss. So, if ignorance is bliss, what’s the opposite of ignorance? Must not be bliss. And your job as a comedian, you know, is basically to notice everything. And the better the comedian, the more aware he or she is of the world around them. So, you know, it can be not a happy place. Sometimes you can have too much information. Sometimes you can know too much.”
Perhaps given Mr. West’s tenacity, fortitude and torque, he will neither duck and cover or get taken out. Time will tell.
But those who fail to find the truth in what Mr. West is exploring and trying to express—albeit imperfectly and often charged with narcissism, testosterone and aggression (and sometimes derailed by drugs he’s taking to “help”)—are letting themselves down more than Mr. West ever will.
We argue fervently today that people who no longer identify with the gender of their birth have the right to change genders and must be supported in this endeavor. No feminist would ever dream of calling a woman who wanted to become a man a “traitor.” Why doesn’t Mr. West deserve the same right to question his identity outside of his race, and retain the right to define himself and his beliefs outside of an assumed “we” that is limited to a prefabricated set of values and views?
And why are we treating Mr. West’s brazen displays of self-destructive “diva” rants, like his recent interview on "TMZ Live," as entertainment—waiting like hungry sharks in a tank of fishless water for him to crash and burn? Is he a brother or not?
We accuse him of betraying us and yet we betray him when we view him as a disposable character in a TV series. He is not Truman Burbank on our personal version of "The Truman Show." He is a real human being.
In the eye-opening New York Times bestseller, "The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America," widely respected addiction and behavior specialist and producer/host of "Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew on VH1," Dr. Drew Pinsky takes a hard look at how the face of entertainment has changed radically—and dangerously—in recent years. “The soap opera of celebrity behavior we all consume on a daily basis—stories of stars treating rehab like vacation, brazen displays of abusive and self-destructive ‘diva’ antics on TV, shocking sexual imagery in prime time and online, and a constant parade of stars crashing and burning—attracts a huge and hungry audience,” he writes. “Is this entertainment? Why do we keep watching?”
Dr. Pinsky also points out how a wide-ranging psychological dysfunction among celebrities may be spreading to the culture at large: the condition known as narcissism.
Pinsky teamed up with business and entertainment expert Dr. S. Mark Young to conduct the first-ever study of narcissism among celebrities. In the process, they discovered that a high proportion of stars suffer from traits associated with clinical narcissism—including vanity, exhibitionism, entitlement, exploitativeness, self-sufficiency, authority, and superiority.
In "The Mirror Effect," Dr. Pinsky and Dr. Young explore how these stars and the media are modeling such behavior for public consumption—and how the rest of us, especially young people, are mirroring these dangerous traits in our own behavior. The book also explores how YouTube, online social networks, and personal blogs offer the temptations and dangers of instant celebrity “to the most vulnerable among us.”
“Because narcissists feel empty and alone, they require constant reinforcement from the world around them to inform and inflate their sense of self,” they write. “Because their sense of self is so flimsy, narcissists are masters at creating ways of getting what they do need to exist: positive feedback and stroking from others. This is just one of the reasons that celebrity and narcissism go hand in hand: Narcissists crave the constant validation of an audience, and the job of the contemporary celebrity is to court his audience, 24/7.”
Isn’t this what we do now with social media? Create posts that will generate positive feedback and stroking from others, 24/7?
“To protect his flimsy self-esteem, and avoid the pain of the inadequacies he constantly feels, the narcissist creates a pseudo-self, an idealized version of himself, and consciously or unconsciously projects it out to others to prime that continual stream of admiration and desire,” Dr. Pinsky and Dr. Young wrote. “As long as the pseudo-self remains firmly in place, the narcissist can continue to believe he’s in control and capable of getting what he wants from others, without exposing any real needs or vulnerabilities… Defend, deny, blame, rationalize—using every mechanism they can, narcissists will consistently reject reality. From their distorted point of view, the real world is the problem, not them. There is no need to behave in any way that might acknowledge any imperfection.”
So, what is a narcissist really?
The dictionary definition of a narcissist is “a person who has an excessive interest in or admiration of themselves.”
H.G. Tudor, a self-described narcissist who makes a living as a professional and (ironically) famous narcissist, describes himself as someone who can skillfully impersonate emotions.
He says in his book "Total Confessions of a Narcissist," “It is my skill at impersonating emotions, that is where my brilliance lies. You see, I know that you want to believe everything I say and do. It is a very human trait. The need to believe… You want to believe in me. You therefore make it easy for me to feign how I feel. I watch, and I learn, and I copy. Since you are desperate to believe you do not analyze my mimicry to any great degree and, accordingly, I get away with it. I create a false environment. This world is one where I promise you the earth (but never deliver), and if you try and challenge me about my promises I will pretend I never said them. You cannot prove it, can you? Thus, I maintain control by causing you to be anxious. Everything I do with you is false. The way I drew you in, the façade I maintain, the games I play. They are all designed to create something, which is not real, purely to serve my purposes.”
PCL, a firm of leading business psychologists specializing in effective HR assessment solutions, describes sociopaths as possessing a “grandiose sense of self-worth.”
“Psychopaths, and to a degree, sociopaths, show a lack of emotion, especially the social emotions such as shame, guilt, and embarrassment,” Dr. William Hirstein wrote in “What is a Psychopath?”
In a follow-up article Dr. Hirstein wrote last year for Psychology Today, “9 Clues You May Be Dealing with a Psychopath," he said: “Ranging from what the PCL describes as ‘glibness’ and ‘superficial charm,’ …and ‘untruthfulness’ and ‘insincerity,’ to outright ‘pathological lying,’ there is a trend toward devaluing speech among psychopaths by inflating and distorting it toward selfish ends.’”
He goes on to say that “psychopaths show unreliability, while the PCL mentions ‘irresponsibility,’ and the Psychopathic Personality Inventory describes psychopaths as showing ‘blame externalization,’ i.e. they blame others for things that are actually their fault.”
In "The Mirror Effect," Dr. Pinsky and Dr. Young say one of the defining characteristics of the narcissist is “a lack of empathy, the ability or willingness to recognize, perceive and relate to the emotions of another person, to experience the world from another’s point of view.
“For the narcissist, the sole purpose of being around other people is to support his exaggerated pseudo-self with a constant stream of admiration. A narcissist will value a friend so long as that person provides validation. When narcissists feel they’re not getting sufficiently supportive feedback, they’re prone to lash out at, or simply drop, their offending friends, with no regard for their feelings or how important the relationship may have been.”
How many people unfriended “friends” on Facebook after the election, when they no longer validated their political point of view and provided supportive feedback? Many expressed sentiments that essentially said, “How dare these ones think they’re better than us—we’re so much better than that!”
Is this not a form of “blame externalization” and reaction formation that lacks empathy and shirks any personal responsibility for a harmonious outcome?
I will be the first to admit, I have certainly said things in the past I did not “feel,” “think” or even agree with because I knew it was how those around me expected me to behave. I also have projected a “pseudo-self” many times to fit into social situations, and acted polite towards someone without an earnest sense of empathy or compassion.
Mr. Tudor, the proud narcissist, describes so clearly in his expressions how he takes actions in order to be perceived as loving—at least according to social norms—but feels no love when he does them.
Who among us has not done this at one time or another? I don’t think Mr. Tudor is as special as he thinks he is.
Call him a narcissist, if you will, but perhaps Mr. West just doesn’t want to be a psychopath anymore. He doesn’t want to project a pseudo-self or say and do things he doesn’t feel any more than Mr. Phoenix wanted to be typecast on or off screen.
Maybe this is what’s wrong with political correctness, which masquerades as compassion: It’s psychopathic in nature. It forces people to say polite things they do not feel or even think, thereby normalizing cultural psychopathy.
We’ve seen it so clearly in the brilliant TV series “House of Cards,” where the main characters, the Underwoods, pretend to emote things they do not feel and have empathy for people who are little more than pawns in their long con. They are political robots who are trained to emote like humans but have no true capacity for empathy. The Underwoods are only invested in the outcomes of the individuals in their lives as long as they advance their personal narratives, egos and goals—just as we are only invested in the outcomes of Mr. West and Mr. Phoenix (and our Facebook friends) as long as they provide entertainment and/or self-justification.
But the true, intrinsic value of humans lies in their ability to have compassion and empathy.
In my experience, the easiest way to have compassion for another person is to be introspective and see where I have exhibited similar behavior in the past. If I examine how my actions or feelings—although different in their out-picturing or expression—may have hit a similar frequency on the emotional spectrum, it’s easier for me to have empathy and compassion for that person.
I also believe it’s easier to have empathy for another person when we take personal responsibility for our own behaviors, thoughts and feelings. In the absence of taking personal responsibility for our expressions, these aforementioned qualities of narcissism, sociopathy and psychopathy are freer to spread and overtake us.
As someone recently said, “You may find this hard to swallow: Your over-dramatization of the superficial devastates your life. So, you hide behind life’s profundity, to make sure you are not that shallow—but the pig returns to the wallow.”
I’m doing my best to stay out of the mud and focus on those gems that people everywhere are dropping, to skim the beauty off the top.
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